Her Fearful Symmetry
by Audrey Niffenegger
Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd
Looking back on it now, the haunting in this novel starts from the first chapter title and the very first sentences. And the haunting pervades everything else from this point onwards.
The layers of haunting are woven together, from the subtle to the obvious, becoming increasingly complex (but fascinating) as the novel progresses. Here are some examples of the layers of haunting:
There is the actual haunting of the deceased characters to the living characters, which is not in the slightest bit scary. It is gentle and emotional, and full of funny and frustrating insights into what an afterlife without a body, voice or power may be like.
There is the omniscient narration, which floats seamlessly between characters, expertly conveying each one's passions, fears, desires and dreams.
There is the threat of history repeating itself. The characters are living in the consequences of, or are haunted by, decisions made in the past and/or past events. They are living in shadows and are trying to shake them off. Equally, the characters are haunted by memories, and these memories either inspire action and change, or they inhibit the ability for the character to fully embrace life. The past seems to have an invisible, ghostly hold over the present.
The characters are haunted by death – the death of friends; death of a relationships; death of pets. The way the characters respond to these deaths (the way they grieve) provides the reader with an insightful exploration of human behaviour; inexplicable and unique.
Some of the characters also haunt each other by obsessing over each other and stalking each other. This layer of haunting is creepier than the actual haunting!
The novel's setting, Highgate Cemetery, which, although a clichéd setting for a ghost story, is described with such beauty and detail that it almost becomes its own character – an unavoidable presence.
Niffenegger's haunting narration tugged, squeezed and wrenched my heart strings from the very first page. The narration evoked real feelings of pain, longing, revulsion, distress and laughter.
Niffenegger has chosen a wonderfully odd combination of about 10 characters who develop even odder relationships with each other. Although Niffenegger gives the reader access to each character's words and thoughts, I was not fully convinced behind some of their actions. For example, why would a 21 year old American girl feel compelled to kiss a middle-aged, married, obsessive/compulsive recluse?
I'm not sure I could believe some of the nuances in the relationships between the characters, but this does not detract from the enjoyment of reading the novel. In fact, it added a quirk. It added the reality of unpredictable, illogical human behaviour. The actions of the characters made me feel sick at times, so rather than ascribing this to Niffenegger's weak creation of convincing relationships, I instead would ascribe the 'sick feeling' to Niffenegger's incredible ability to shock the reader.
The novel takes many turns into the unexpected, pushing the boundaries of acceptability (and believability), until a gentle tale of American twins moving to London becomes a disturbing macabre spectacle of deceit and murder. At points when I decided that 'this plot is too ridiculous and unbelievable', I rationed with myself that this is a ghost story and so by nature is not intended to be believable. And yet I was still shocked and horrified by the bizarre ending.
Her fearful Symmetry is a thrill to read. Niffenegger creates tension and suspense that make the pages turn themselves.